Lowndes County During ReconstructionBy Bill Daugherty
From a historical standpoint, the horrors of the War Between the States ended at the Appomattox courthouse in 1865. However, in the South, the terrible consequences of the war continued for many years after the actual surrender of the Confederate troops. In Lowndes County, Georgia, life after the war was difficult and troublesome. Many problems trace their roots to the difficulties of that time period. Unfortunately, thanks to a fire that destroyed the county records in 1877, no public records of that era exist and there are no exact dates for any occurrences recalled by witnesses (History 64).
Similarly to most Southern towns Valdosta, saw many of its young men who had served as Confederate soldiers arrive home months after the end of the war. Some local citizens were not released from northern prisons until several months had passed after the Confederate surrender. A recorded history of Lowndes County says that "most of the soldiers from Lowndes County had to walk from Savannah to Doctortown . . . because the railroads had been torn up by the Union army, and some [soldiers] had to walk all the way from Virginia" (History 52).
The placement of a northern garrison, mostly made up of blacks, in the Valdosta courthouse created several disturbances in the local community. The garrison reportedly arrested an innocent white man, Dick Force, shortly after the war. He was charged with verbally and physically assaulting a former slave. Despite witnesses' testimony that he was innocent, he was wanted by the Northern garrison for the crime. While wanted by the local northern authorities, he attended a party for a relative in Valdosta. Several members of the northern garrison arrived to arrest him and the situation ended reportedly with his unjustified death at the hands of northern officers. Thankfully Lowndes escaped without any major crisis over the incident due to the wise intervention of several older white gentlemen who convinced Force's relatives not to cause any problems because of his death (Shelton 154).
In another incident the Northern soldiers tied a local white farmer up by his thumbs and left him hanging for several hours (Wisenbaker 38). Situations like these added to the gap between the North and the South, and they caused the moderate members of the local community to develop a hatred for Northerners. Jane Shelton asserts that most local citizens were neither bigots nor carried hateful prejudices toward blacks, by saying that the whites in Lowndes county "did not intend to deny the Negro his rights; they resented, however, freedmen being put in authority [over them]" (154).
One of the most important and prominent events of the Reconstruction period in Valdosta occurred at a political meeting in front of the courthouse. J.W. Clift, essentially considered a carpet-bagger, was running for Congress and was seeking the support of the former slaves, who had recently been granted suffrage. Clift reportedly attacked the local white community and appealed to the Freedmen in a method that was both hateful and indignant toward the white community. In response five young men planted explosives at the courthouse, planning to set them off during a political rally for Clift. However, when other white members of the town arrived without warning at the courthouse, the five managed to prevent most of the explosives from going off. The explosion that did result was small, and according to eye witness' reports, it was most probably the equivalent of several fire crackers going off under the courthouse. Not a single person was injured or harmed in any way.
Despite the speedy arrest and planned trail of the five young men, Northern soldiers arrived with orders to take the five culprits to Savannah for trial. No one from the northern garrison had notified the local authorities, and records imply that the soldiers might have arrived at night to escort the prisoners away. The response of the local Lowndes community was one of ultimate distress. They felt like the Northern military was overstepping its authority and endangering their rights for self-government. The response by Northern authorities, under the command of General Meade, to what was characterized as little more than a show of anger, was perceived as a "heavy-booted response to a prank". Incidents like this involving the Northern occupation of the area only "served to anger a citizenry which was making an earnest effort to observe the law and to deal impartially with all men" (Shelton 150-163).
The members of the local white community no doubt mistreated and abused some former slaves, but few records indicate any mistreatment. According to historical records from the area, the individuals who did mistreat blacks were not the norm. One passage states that those who mistreated blacks often abused their own families, and implied that they were not highly regarded in the community. The incidents that are recorded detail the misuses of power by the northern garrison. History of Lowndes County records that "All kinds of imaginary troubles were reported to the [garrison] headquarters by some of the [former] slaves". It also charges that "Southern men were tried here [the courthouse] and all kinds of lawlessness were heaped upon [them]" (History 51-52).
Although with regard to national history Lowndes has no place, it was part of an important economic region during and shortly after Reconstruction. Many report unethical northern monetary practices during this time. At the start of Reconstruction, the locals were forced to pay 50 cents per yard for all cotton products manufactured in the North; however they were paid far less by the Northern factories than the cotton they grew was worth. The North also sold cotton products to the South which were manufactured from cotton confiscated during the war, without ever making any attempt to reimburse them (History 51). But having recovered from the effects of the war and the under handed dealings of the North, Lowndes grew into the largest inland producer of long staple or Sea Island cotton in the world, by shortly after the turn of the century (History 89).
Reconstruction was not a proud period in the history of the United States. It was an era when martial law prevailed. Luckily for those living in Lowndes County today, Valdosta was not a firmly established town until after the war. This county and town had their infancy during Reconstruction and grew up to become a striving community in spite of the adversary of that time period. However, the original founders of this town have passed on and their ways have long since been forgotten. In reminiscing about her childhood Mrs. Thannie Wisenbaker, a resident of Lowndes county during and after the Civil War, says "mothers and daughters, and the young people, would gather around the pianos and sing the songs . . . many of which are never heard anymore. They, and the voices that sang them in the primitive days of Valdosta, have passed into oblivion" (29).
History of Lowndes County Georgia 1825-1941. 1942. Valdosta: General James Jackson chapter D.A.R., 1995.
Shelton, Jane Twitty. Pines and Pioneers: A History of Lowndes County Georgia 1825-1900. Atlanta: Cherokee, 1976.
Wisenbaker, Thannie Smith. Memoirs, 1940. Lowndes County Historical Society.